BICENTENNIAL MAN : Robert Altman 's Nashville [10/10]

Published on: February 17th, 2005

Nashville may not be Altman's best film – with apologies to the many passionate advocates of Thieves Like Us, that's probably (if narrowly) The Long Goodbye. But it's certainly his most ambitious: made and released to coincide with  (and provide an ironic counterpoint to) the USA's Bicentennial celebrations, the film offers – in critic Danny Peary's phrase – a 159-minute "crazy-quilt vision of America" following no fewer than two-dozen characters around Tennessee's country music capital over one hectic weekend.

At times it feels like an extended pilot for a sitcom that unfortunately never got made – the actual history of how the film got made would actually make a fascinating picture in its own right**. Attempting any kind of detailed synopsis (or, indeed orthodox film-criticism) of this sprawling panorama would, however, be a thankless and pointless task, so open is it to subjective interpretation. Suffice it to say that there's something here to delight, infuriate, offend and dazzle just about everyone: like its director, Nashville is big, brilliant, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, sour and scabrous.

One of Peary's main criticisms is that the numbers in the film (nearly all of them written by the actors themselves) aren't really country songs at all. This is true: apart from the folky, convincingly chart-friendly tunes performed by Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines, nearly all the tracks we hear are verbose spoofs of country standards. And Peary's comment that Altman and his scriptwriter Joan Tewkesbury "condescending" towards performers and public alike is a reasonable one.

But Altman is clearly not especially interested in country music per seNashville is primarily a political film, pointing out the unhealthy blurring between politics and show-business which has, if anything, gathered pace in the intervening three decades. Country-music, like every branch of showbusiness, is an illustration of what happens when capitalism is allowed to spiral out of control: a tiny handful of extremely wealthy (but unhappy) individuals at the top of the pile, their "glamorous" lifestyles providing the aspirational goals and dreams which keep the impoverished majority in line. The proto-Shania-Twain character played by Gwen Welles is far being from Nashville's only chillingly prophetic aspect – though of course it's a complete accident that Henry Gibson (as populist, patriotic old-school warbler Haven Hamilton) bears such a strong facial resemblance to George W Bush.

As well as being the Bicentennial, 1976 was an election year, and the (non-stop) action is punctuated with campaign propaganda from (fictional) populist candidate Hal Philip Walker, blaring out of loudspeakers atop a roaming van. While Walker is often heard but (amusingly) never seen, his campaign-manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) is very visible – he's in town to organise a rally for his candidate, which provides the film with its chaotic, shatteringly dark finale.

This climax is all the more startling in that, up to this point, Nashville has been easily one of the most relentlessly funny films ever made. Altman isn't in the business of belly-laughs, however: this isn't an especially pretty or nice form of humour. But since when has biting satire ever even tried to be "nice"? There's no rule which states that geniuses have to be nice people – Altman's scathing misanthropism (present, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout his prodigiously long career) is what gives his films much of their unique energy.

Altman is a sufficiently large artist, meanwhile, to allow different, often less cynical currents to flow within the loose structure he has created: the improvisational, loose atmosphere of the film allows each of the 24 personalities space to take shape and mingle, from Shelley Duvall's magnificently vacuous, solipsistic, rollerskating  'LA Joan' to Jeff Goldblum's mute 'Tricycle Man' to Lily Tomlin's radiant gospel-singing Linnea (Tomlin, Raines and Ronee Blakley as the Loretta Lynn-like Barbara Jean make the strongest impact).

This  'looseness' transmits itself to every aspect of the production – the free-floating, slightly hazy camerawork by Paul Lohmann, and the innovative multi-track recording technology which allows foreground and background sounds to mingle. The machinery couldn't quite keep pace with Altman's ambition, however, and at least 10% of the dialogue nigh-on inaudible. But this is all part of the fun: Nashville is a grand, absurd, one-off experiment in film-making, and it continues to dwarfs pretty much everything that American cinema has come up with ever since.

Neil Young

17th February 2005

NASHVILLE : [10/10] : USA 1975 : Robert ALTMAN : 159 mins
seen at National Film Theatre, London : 12th January, 2005 : public show

** the next best thing is Jan Stuart's eminently readable, very illuminating book The Nashville Chronicles : The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece, published by and orderable from Limelight Editions (http://www.limelighteditions.com/film.htm)
Among the many gems in Stuart's chronicle is the reaction from Loretta Lynn – the model for Nashville's volatile, doomed Barbara Jean:

            "I don't care if they have me kinda crazy, because I am. I don't
            care if they have me goin' in and out of hospitals, because I do.
            But when I hear they're cartin' my dead body off and havin'
            an unknown take my place — that I don't like!"